Why We Bought A Used School Bus In Phoenix, Arizona
After months of research, we decided to buy a used 22-year-old school bus in Phoenix for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is what we found after shopping for buses in Ontario. We’ll get more into that in a minute.
Before we dive into the reasons why we bought a used school bus in Arizona, we need to rewind time for a moment to give you some background on how this decision came into reality. This part of our life’s adventure all started about nine months after we put the idea of doing a van conversion on the shelf back in December of 2018. There was something we just didn’t like about converting a van into a motorhome. However, we had not even considered turning a school bus into a tiny home on wheels.
Reader Alert: Converting a school bus into a tiny home on wheels may or may not BE for everyone.
Buying a used school bus may BE right for you, too.
Not a reader? Watch this on the BEAP YouTube Channel!
If you don’t know about us yet, I (Brian), am from Texas, and Erin is from Ontario.
We’re unlike most people, yet are similar to a growing number of people who are experiencing an awakening around the world. One day, we had the realization that we’re all attempting to “keep up with the Joneses.”
Do you feel how we felt? If so, you’re in the right place and maybe experiencing the awakening alongside us.
So how do we escape the consumerism that is society?
Everyone handles that situation differently. For Erin and I, we sold everything and started our Adventure together. After experiencing three continents, 19 countries, and 48 Airbnbs, we decided to start looking for a platform that could be a mobile home on wheels.
If you’d like, check out what we considered when looking for a used school bus to buy in Ontario, as our search took us beyond Canada to the US of A.
If you’re considering buying a used school bus in a cold climate, like we were, you may be interested in the problems we ran into, which could have cost us thousands of dollars. Heck, these tips may save you a stack of cash because they allow you to avoid these pitfalls that nearly got us.
Fighting The School Bus Rust Battle
There’s no escaping it. In cold (freezing) environments, there is a high likelihood that the roads are salted. After the first exposure to salted asphalt, followed by years of carting kids to school, buses can start developing rust. I’m not just talking about a little surface rust. What we’re talking about is corrosive, structure damaging rust that turns a tank of a machine into a pile of rusty dust.
Erin and I toured twelve buses in Ontario and paid $85 CAD (~ $65 USD) for a 3rd party truck mechanic to learn what we were looking for in a bus engine and chassis.
One thing we learned from the truck mechanic was that if we were to tap on the rusted metal supports, would they be able to take the tip of a screwdriver without punching through the metal?
If the answer is YES, do what Tony from AAA Bus Sales told us five times, “Do not buy a rusty bus.”
“Do not buy a rusty bus.”
– Tony, AAA Bus Sales
Besides the engine and its computer needing to be in excellent condition, the #1 thing to consider is, “does this used bus have problematic rust?”
Back under the bus, the truck mechanic looked at me and said, “What do you think you’re going to put inside the bus above here?” as he pointed to the rusted out steel supports going across the chassis.
“That area inside is going to be our 100-gallon freshwater storage,” I replied.
“No. You would have to rebuild this entire back area to hold that weight” the truck mechanic smirked.
That was the best $85 bucks we had spent so far because it saved us accidentally buying a $6,000 CAD dog-nose traditional International old school bus that has rust to the bones.
Every bus we toured in Ontario, even far south in Saint Thomas, was so rusted that they were not going to be suitable to turn into our tiny home on wheels.
So where are we to buy a used bus that’s not rusted out?
School Bus Supply vs. Demand
While we were looking for an old school bus in Ontario, we noticed that there happened to be quite a few for sale from school districts. One thing we noticed was that there were more busses for sale than there seemed to be buyers.
Consider this a warning!
If there are a ton of school buses for sale in your area and no one seems to be buying them, why is that the case?
If the supply is abundant in an area, but the demand is low, ask yourself, WHY are these things not moving?
Is it that they have mechanical problems?
Does the area historically create problems with the vehicles that are not worth repairing?
The biggest problem we saw in southern Ontario is that the used school buses just happened to have reached the end of their useful life because the metal supporting structures under the bus were completely rusted out.
After having spent $85 CAD on a mechanic to check out a used school bus we were interested in, that mechanic shed light on the fact that most buses in Ontario would be entirely rusted out, which is why the supply was so high.
Although there is a demand for used school buses in Ontario, we quickly found that people were looking elsewhere to purchase a used school bus to convert into a skoolie.
This got us thinking as to where on earth would someone invest several thousand dollars in the platform that will be powerful enough to tote around their tiny home on wheels?
We’ll get into where we bought our skoolie in a moment.
Van Life vs. Skoolie | Does Size Matter?
Initially, we were intrigued by people who were converting vans into motorhomes. It seemed pretty straight forward, but there was something that didn’t jive with us. Most of the couples we saw driving around a converted van seemed to be cramped.
Now, we’re not saying #VanLife is entirely out of the picture. But at the time that we were considering doing it, we didn’t have $60k USD (~$79k CAD) just laying around to buy the van itself, much less affording the cost of conversion. Albeit, the van we were looking at was a Mercedes Sprinter 4×4, extended with the high roof. That price tag alone was a steep barrier to entry, let alone the limited size of the space in which to live.
Over six months later, the fire within us was stoked when we started to see videos on YouTube of people saying they were doing something called a “Skoolie Conversion.” Our ears perked up when we saw that people were turning full-sized used school buses into motorhomes.
Why have we not thought of this earlier?
Life has its way of giving us a perspective on where we are at each particular moment. During the last few months, we had traveled through Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, and were on the little island of Bonaire when we started seriously researching Skoolie conversions.
We found people from all walks of life who had bought a used school bus to convert into their tiny home on wheels.
Something that we liked about the idea of converting an old school bus into a motorhome is that there is a considerable amount of more livable space.
The amenities that we want in a skoolie:
- Living room with two couches
- Full Kitchen with an oven, stovetop, large fridge, full-sized sink
- Bathroom with a composting toilet, shower, and sink
- Bedroom with a queen-sized bed
- Solar system to be electrically off-grid
- 100 Gallon freshwater tank
- Those are some massive pros when you have more space to work within a bus.
The problem with a skoolie, though, is that the vehicle is probably considerably more massive than a van. This means that it takes turns wider; it is most likely going to be substantially more cumbersome than a van; it might not be able to go down some roads. Some people say that certain National Parks do not allow big rigs like a Full-Sized Skoolie.
However, we feel like the pros of a skoolie are more than the cons at this point in our lives. Not to say a van conversion is entirely out of the picture in the future, but we want the ability to have more space inside if its rainy outside.
For us, size does matter, mainly because I (Brian) am 6′ 2″ which means that ceiling height must be a bit higher. Plus, Erin and I are both creative souls in the kitchen and craft-wise. Having our tools and camera gear available to us is key.
Where To Buy Used School Buses
When it comes to figuring out where to buy used school buses, there are surprisingly many places to acquire your future adventure vehicle. In just a moment, you’ll see why we bought a used school bus in Phoenix, Arizona, versus going with any of these other routes.
Here are some ideas of where to buy used school buses:
- Online auction sites
- Private online classifieds
- Directly from the school district
- From a dealer
Now, let’s explore those ways above to locate and buy a used school bus.
Buying An Old School Bus From An Online Auction
Buying an old school bus through an online auction site was the first way we thought to go because it is incredibly convenient to look at a ton of buses at once. After doing some research by watching some YouTube videos of what other people had done, we heard that online auction sites could be the place for the best deals.
One site, in particular, is called GovDeals. We’re not associated with them in any way, but I thought we’d just let you know what resources we used because it makes writing this more straightforward than to try to mask where we searched.
While using GovDeals was straight forward, and we found several candidates that matched our criteria, the problem was that we were not able to see them in person. Some listings had a single picture, while other listings had ten or twenty.
Most of the buses on GovDeals were military transports, and some school districts would post their coaches there as well.
Although this auction site had some super inexpensive buses (like $1,500 starting bid), not being able to jump in it, scoot underneath it, pop the hood, and take it for a spin was undoubtedly a deal-breaker.
Now, we’re not saying that you won’t find a good deal on an auction site, because you may. However, we just want to say that if a vehicle is going for such a low starting price, we ask ourselves one big question, “What’s wrong with it?”
If the tires are worn out, old and cracked, you’re going to look at spending roughly $400+ USD/tire. Most school buses have six tires which would set you back around $2,400 bucks right out of the gate.
Now you’ve gotta ask yourself what else may be wrong with it before even beginning your conversion?
We ended up passing on all the buses we found on the auction site and continued our search.
Private online classifieds like Craig’s List or Kijiji
Sometimes buying things from a person is so much better than risking it in an online auction. It’s these person to person connections that relationships are made.
What’s cool about that is buying an old school bus from an individual off sites like Craig’s List or Kijiji may be just what you’re looking for in a good deal. Sometimes people buy old school buses, start converting them, then something happens in their life. They run out of time to finish the conversion, or they got in over their head.
It happens, but there’s no reason why you cannot snag a good deal.
When using sites that offer person-to-person selling, be sure to bring along a third-party truck mechanic to inspect the vehicle with you. Even though you can ask questions to the owner themselves, crawl around and inspect the bus or also go for a test drive with them, it’s worth a hundred bucks to have a mechanic give you a detailed report on if that vehicle is worth the price. The mechanic could even let you know whether or not there is work that needs to be done over and beyond the conversion itself.
When we were looking at Craig’s List and Kijiji, we didn’t find any school buses in our area or an area we planned to be in, which is why we didn’t go this route.
Buy A Used School Bus Directly From The School District
After searching online, we ended up visiting our first buses in person at a local school district in Ontario. We were quite excited because we had not attended any yet, and this school bus barn was only 45 minutes away from us.
Upon arrival, we found out that they had six traditional dog-nosed front-engine International buses available.
Something to note is that most buses are retired from the school bus route at either ten years or 250,000 miles of use.
All of the buses we were looking at we’re a little older, but still considerably low in milage (or kilometrage, eh?)
We walked around the buses with the vehicle inspection form that I created from the years of inspecting fire trucks on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
Want our used school bus visual inspection form? Get It Free
The things we were looking for were oil & hydraulic leaks, rust, broken metal, bare metal rub marks, tire condition, lights, body damage, and window damage (along with a myriad of many other things).
While looking at the buses, we noticed that all of them had a super rusty underside. We ended up finding one bus that we liked, and had a third party mechanic from down the street check it out. After about 45 minutes of the mechanic looking over it, he told us that there was no way we would be able to secure a 100-gallon freshwater tank to the inside of the bus because the rust on the underside was so bad it was flaking off.
Although the school district staff was super friendly, searching for a school bus in Ontario, Canada was now off our list of places to shop. During the snowy winters, salt from the road acts as a corrosive agent to the steel undercarriage of the bus. The salt causes the steel to rust irreparably.
One thing the school districts have going for themselves is that their buses are required to have fleet maintenance. Consequently, this means that the buses are all maintained to the highest degree because they must be safe and reliable to cart around kids to and from school. And if you ask, they may give you the bus maintenance records! So don’t be shy to ask if you could get a copy, and if your bus was “Fleet Maintained.”
Buying A School Bus From A Dealer
On our way back from our mechanic looking at the school district bus we had picked out, we stopped at a second used school bus barn that happened to have twelve buses ready to be sold. Immediately, we crawled underneath all of them, and even buses as young as five years old were rusted out beyond what we wanted to deal with.
That’s when we said enough is enough and bought one-way tickets to Phoenix, Arizona.
We had previously learned about a guy named Tony, who owned a dealership called AAA Bus Sales, and we wanted to visit that guy.
On the phone, he sounded like a straight shooter who had 54 buses to choose from, all of which were from southern Arizona. This area is definitely below the snow belt!
Now, we are not affiliated nor endorsed by AAA Bus Sales (or any of the other ways of finding buses we mentioned in this article), and all our views are our own, unbiased, real-world, first-hand experience.
Tony picked us up from the airport at 1:00 pm and spent the entire second half of the day with us looking at buses. He took us for a test drive, let us walk around the lot by ourselves to talk after a bit and gave us great recommendations on where to eat.
The next day, we had our beauty picked out. Tony looked at our vehicle inspection checklist and was quite impressed by the details we had that we were keeping notes on the buses we were looking at.
One thing we liked most about getting The BEAP Mobile from a dealer is that AAA Bus Sales specializes in selling buses. They keep a robust inventory of quality used school buses because they love the skoolie community, and they want to provide solid machines for people to build on.
If you’re on the fence about converting a school bus into a motorhome, know that old school buses are designed to be tanks. They are built on industrial chassis, with solid steel ribs and corrugated steel exterior skins.
When you go to Google and search ‘RV Wreck,’ look at the images that come up. Motorhomes traditionally are built out of lightweight wooden frames covered in fiberglass explode upon impact.
School buses have rub rails on the exterior, which add rigidity to the body, preventing them from experiencing much damage, which is why you do not want a rusty bus.
Tony said it perfectly, “Do not buy a rusty bus.”
Besides spending a ton of time trying to get rid of the rust, you’ll also spend quite a bit of cash buying more steel to fix it. This is why starting with a rust-free platform is best.
Also, school buses are designed to resist being crushed if they roll over. All the ribs inside the bus are like a built-in roll-cage. By starting off with a solid foundation, you’re sure to have thousands of miles of fun to come.
No matter which resource you use to acquire your bus, make sure it is exactly what you’re looking for and is rust-free. It pays to have a third-party mechanic look over your potential adventure vehicle because this skoolie could be the difference between working to pay the mortgage for the next 20-30 years or paying cash and owning your skoolie outright on day one (like we did).
Your skoolie story matters
We know it’s kind of a dry topic, but your skoolie insurance & RV title story could really help someone in your area get going on their dream machine.
Our goal is to gather stories from people from all over Canada & the US who have successfully gotten their school bus titled as an RV, and their insurance story too. The goal is to curate stories from each state and province to make it easier for people to confidently jump into this adventure.
If you want to share your story with us, please fill out this short survey! We will happily feature you on our blog! This info needs to be known! Some people will quit their tiny home on wheels dream because this step seems too daunting! BUT with everyone’s help, it doesn’t have to BE.
Hey, we're Brian + Erin. Currently, we're workin' on our bug out bus. Lucky the proverbial $hit hadn't hit the fan yet when we picked up this 40-foot beauty in Phoenix AZ and drove it up to Canada to convert it. Hopefully, we all still have time...
Honestly, this bus conversion has been the only sane thing in this insane world lately. We can't tell you how good it feels to BE working on something that lights our souls up and has such potential for a life that is entwined with nature, love, and happiness.
Our main goal is to inspire people to get off-grid and become self-reliant. We are well on our way and are super excited to talk about solutions with others who are shooting for a similar way of living.
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